Holidays in Venice

Friday morning we had a very early wake-up, as we wanted to be on the road by 8am.  We were driving the rental car from Tuscany to Venice, with a stop in Ravenna along the way.  Originally we’d planned to travel to Ravenna from Venice as a day trip, but a bit more research revealed that the train trip was about three hours each way… so we decided a stop en route to Venice would make more sense.

With only about three hours in our stop-over, we hit the ground running in Ravenna—heading straight for the two major sights: the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Basilica di San Vitale.  The former building, completed in the 5th century, when Ravenna was one of the capitals of a declining Roman empire, has been described by UNESCO as “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect.”  The mosaics are extraordinary—even having seen pictures online, I was bowled over when we entered the small space. 

The small curved dome of the ceiling, the side panels, the lintels—every space is covered in images that seem to glow.  The windows themselves are alabaster, like the cathedral in Orvieto—but much darker, more opaque slices.  Visitors are allowed only five minutes inside the building, both to accommodate the number of visitors and to preserve the mosaics themselves (95% of which are original). 

One of the most famous repeating patterns—gold stars against a lapis lazuli background—is repeated throughout the ceiling.  Later in the day, I would find a small version of one of these gorgeous stars in a mosaicist’s studio… and that one is now safely stowed in my suitcase.  🙂

After spending our allotted time inside the Mausoleum, we walked over to the Basilica di San Vitale.  The size and splendor—the sheer volume of the Byzantine mosaics inside—are difficult to describe.  It’s simply amazing.  I spent my first few minutes inside admiring the floors: done in a style that echoes the mosaics we saw in Rome and Naples.

Having postponed the walls and ceilings, I now turned my attention to this delayed gratification.  What a riot of color and symbols. 

Apostles, birds, Jesus, flowers, an emperor, and angels—all vie for your attention.  I was particularly struck by the portraits of Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora—note that Justinian has both the worldly crown of the emperor and the halo of a saint—an interesting pair of symbols for one man (and of course very much on purpose, as he wished to consolidate power by this conjunction).

Our guidebook noted that “San Vitale can be seen as the last of the ancient Roman art and the first of the Christian era”—and that change can be clearly seen in the two versions of Jesus on this same ceiling—the beardless shepherd and the bearded Christ, just across from one another.

The rest of our time in Ravenna was divided between finding lunch, ducking into several small mosaic studios, and seeing a few more churches, each decorated with mosaic (though none as lavishly as the two described above).  But I was a happy traveler indeed—Ravenna was definitely the crown jewel in my tour of Italy’s mosaics.

And so we returned to our Fiat, ready to drive the final two and half hours to Venice.  We arrived just in time to return our car to Europcar… but none of the garages were clearly marked—and we had no directives from the rental company about where to go.  After making several wrong turns, we wound up re-crossing the bridge back to the mainland, then coming back to Venice and parking the car on the tenth floor of the first garage in the Piazzale Roma (which is as far as wheeled traffic can go in this lagoon town).  By this time, the rental agency had closed, but we gathered our luggage and dropped the keys in the overnight slot.  Fortunately, no penalties seem to have applied.  Phew!

Since we had wheeled luggage, our AirBnB host had recommended taking a vaporetto (the city water bus) from the Piazzale Roma to the stop nearest our apartment.  While bridges connect all of the city’s many islands, most of the bridges have steps (and no ramps).  So we wheeled our bags aboard a city boat and off we went (with me half-enjoying the initial sights of the Grand Canal and half-wondering how many tourists fall in every year). 

Our apartment in Venice was one of the very best we’ve had so far—it was newly renovated, with wonderfully thoughtful touches throughout.  And the location was terrific—just steps away from lots of restaurants and a grocery store in a converted theater—but very quiet, since it was tucked away down a little side street.  

We spent the rest of the evening settling in to our final Italian home.  Venice is our last stop in Italy, and we are looking forward to spending the Easter holidays here (along with Penelope’s birthday!).

On Saturday morning we were up early, heading back to Piazzale Roma to meet with my dad and Penelope.  Handoff complete, my dad headed back to the Venice campground so that my folks could drive to Croatia later that day.  We’ll be seeing them again in a few weeks—in Paris!  Until then, they will be on the move: Croatia, northern Italy, and southern France.

We walked back to our apartment, hearing from Penelope about her week away with the grandparents, eating lunch, and settling in a bit more.  After lunch, we decided on the tour of Venice via the Grand Canal cruise.  So we boarded vaporetto #1 back at Piazzale Roma, and listened to Rick Steves’ audio tour as we cruised from the beginning of the Grand Canal all the way down to St. Mark’s Square.  A gorgeous day on the water!

Upon arrival, we opted to tour the Correr Museum and tool around St. Mark’s Square.  The Correr is a great, underrated museum—which also means it’s much quieter and more sparsely populated by tourists than the Doge’s Palace or St. Mark’s itself.  We wandered happily around the rooms of art, artillery, and archeological finds for a few hours, then took a break in the museum café, which had a wonderful view of the cathedral across the square.

When Penelope realizes she’s in a ballroom…
…continuing her dance moves in the Square…
…ending up on the back of a giant lion.
The Bridge of Sighs.
The golden hour in Venice… a beautiful end to our first full day.

By 6pm or so, we decided we ought to head to the grocery store to fully stock our larder for the next few days… most grocery stores would be closed for Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, as both are national holidays here in Italy.  All of Venice had the same idea, so the store was, not surprisingly, a madhouse.  But we made it out in one piece, heading home for some well-earned rest.

Easter Sunday was a lovely day!  Penelope was especially excited to celebrate in an Italian fashion—instead of baskets, children here receive absolutely enormous chocolate eggs (often with toys inside) and share in a Colomba, a dove shaped cake.  While Penelope was with her grandparents, we’d secured both of these items and stowed them away to surprise her.  And delighted she was!

After a delicious brunch, we decided we’d tour the Doge’s Palace and then walk back to our apartment—seeing a bit more of Venice on land this time.  I’d expected the streets to be, if not empty, perhaps more sparsely populated, given that the day was a religious holiday in a very Catholic country.  But in fact, the opposite was true.  St. Mark’s Square was even more crowded than on Saturday, with masses of people everywhere you looked.  Almost all of the tourist stores were open, the restaurants, and many of the tourist sites as well.  So we dove into the crowds and made our way to the Doge’s Palace.

Inside wasn’t nearly as crowded, and our pace slowed as we explored the many rooms therein.  Beautiful frescoes, paintings, and architecture abounded. 

We particularly enjoyed crossing over the Bridge of Sighs, which we’d seen from the outside the day before, and exploring the dungeons.

Penelope lets loose a wistful sigh…
Artsy shot from the Bridge.

We ended our visit in the gift shop, where Penelope decided (once again) to enlarge her jewelry collection.  Fortunately, her savings have kept pace with her acquisitions… and she reminded me that every piece will have a “memory of these wonderful places, Mama!”  A fair point.  🙂

We walked home the long way, getting enjoyably lost a few times, finding our way again, and savoring all of the sights and sounds of this city in the lagoon.

Monday was Pasquetta, Easter Monday.  A day of museums for us: both the Accademia and the Guggenheim were on the agenda, along with some mask shopping and a gondola ride.

We began the day at the Accademia, home to Venetian Renaissance painting.  It’s a relatively small museum, and undergoing some renovation, so we spent relatively little time there—though the small temporary exhibit on Bosch and da Vinci was a lovely surprise. 

Afterwards, we decided on lunch at nearby Al Vecio Marangon, a small neighborhood restaurant.  There we relaxed and enjoyed a delightful meal of small plates (known in Venice as cicchetti), all freshly prepared and wonderfully seasoned.   Thus fortified, we now prepared ourselves for an essential Venetian outing: mask shopping. 

Since Penelope’s birthday is on the road this year, she’s received a few monetary gifts in lieu of the usual books or toys.  Bolstered by this unusual largesse, she decided that she would buy a mask here in Venice with some of that birthday money.  We’ve been stopping in and out of various mask stores over the past few days, but today was the day.  At Ca’Macana, one of Venice’s most well-known mask stores, she narrowed her choices from the delightful myriad to some final contenders.

Her parents also joined in the dress-up—though, alas, their choices were not purchased.  Though I do think the pirate hat really suited Jeremy. 

Ca’Macana is one of the few mask shops that allows photos, which is lovely.  I think it encourages people to stay longer (and makes the shop owners seem less forbidding).  But I can understand why others prefer not to have their wares used but not purchased.  After quite some time, Penelope settled on her final choice…

…and we’ll figure out how to get it home somehow!

Next it was off to the Guggenheim, where we spent the first forty-five minutes in the gardens.

Initially we circulated, admiring the sculptures, but soon Penelope was deeply engrossed in games of tag and red light/green light with a French girl just her age.  She had, as always, a delightful time playing—and was hard-pressed to enter the museum and start looking at the art.  But eventually we coaxed her inside, where from time to time we ran into her new friend again.

We finished our time at the museum (having very much enjoyed the eclectic modern collection after weeks of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance art), and set out on our final adventure of the day: a gondola ride!

We’d promised Penelope a gondola ride in Venice for her birthday, but since the forecast promised rain on her actual birthday, we’d decided to go today instead.  As we left the Guggenheim, we peered down several side canals, and spotted a likely looking gondolier.  As we stepped down into the boat, it shifted ominously… but we were quickly and professionally ushered to our seats and were soon afloat. 

As you can, I was initially in the so-called “love seat” with Jeremy, but Penelope hastened to point out that the ride was for her birthday, so she asked for a spot in the primo viewing area… and I ceded my claim.

We started on the Grand Canal, then drifted down some smaller lanes, and emerged into a much larger body of water—the Giudecca Canal.  Here much larger boats were creating substantial waves, and the lighter gondola was sent into a series of tumultuous moves—and Penelope loved every minute. 

It was a lovely half an hour floating around the canals, and we were so glad to share this experience with our birthday girl.  As soon as we disembarked, she asked when we could go again.  A happy kiddo indeed.

Tuesday was our second major holiday in Venice: Penelope’s 8th birthday!  After a breakfast celebration and a few small gifts at home, we headed out into the rain to do some exploring.  Penelope had requested no museums for her birthday, but she wanted to show us St. Mark’s cathedral (which she had seen earlier in the week with her grandparents).  When we emerged into the streets near our apartment, she was over the moon to realize that the canal waters were splashing over the edge of the embankments.  While it wasn’t Aqua Alta, there was definitely some flooding—and all day long, Penelope proclaimed, “It’s flooding!  For my birthday!” in tones of delighted triumph.  But before we headed for the Cathedral, we first stopped at a gelateria for a birthday treat.

When we reached St. Mark’s Square and joined the queue for the cathedral, we found that we were indeed on the elevated walkways Venice keeps handy for just this occasion.  While we weren’t in any danger of real flooding, it was still quite interesting to see this dynamic evidence of the ways in which Venice is sinking (and the sea is rising), year by year.

You’ll have to imagine Penelope exclaiming, “It’s flooding!! This is amazing!” while jumping up and down on the elevated walkway.

The cathedral itself was lovely, if very dark on this rainy day.  But what we could see of the mosaics was quite wonderful.  The best part was perhaps the museum upstairs, which offers great views from the balconies (where the women worshipped in the earliest days of this Church), a chance to see the famous horses up close, and many other original statues and mosaics.

After our rainy afternoon, we headed to dinner at a nearby pizzeria, as Penelope had asked for a pizza dinner to celebrate.  We happily obliged.

While we might have wished for better weather for Penelope’s birthday, she was radiant with happiness all day long.   It was a joy to see her so delighted with this traveling birthday—I hope it’s one she’ll remember for a long time.

Wednesday, our last day in Venice, dawned bright and sunny.  We’d decided to head over to another island, Murano, to see a glassblowing demonstration and the various glass shops there.  After a quick ferry ride across the lagoon, we soon arrived.

As we were browsing the shops, one of the shopkeeps in a particularly fine gallery suggested we might enjoy touring a glass factory nearby.  After exchanging a few words about timing and location, she offered to walk us over—and so, to our surprise, she locked up the shop and we were off.  We’d had the good fortune to be offered a tour of the Massimiliano Schiavon Art Team’s factory—and it was amazing to see the artwork being created there.  The family there is the sixth-generation of glassblowers, and their work was astonishing in its color and variety.  We watched a few of the artists at work, while our guide offered explanations.

Then we toured the seemingly endless galleries, gazing in awe at the chandeliers, vases, frames, and mosaic art.

After an hour at the factory, we wandered back to the main square, enjoying the sights—from a giant glass tree in the piazza to tiny glass gnomes in windows.

At one store we passed, Penelope noted that the artist inside made glass necklaces to order.  She decided then and there that she would purchase one, and stepped right up to discuss her ideas with the artist.  She asked for the letter P, made of blue and purple glass, in a fancy style—all of this delivered in a no-nonsense, authoritative tone.  She may be only newly eight years old, but she negotiates and orders like nobody’s business.  (side note: I don’t even like making phone calls.  Clearly, this skill isn’t an inherited one.)

Watching the artist at work… then realizing I was snapping an unauthorized photo. Ha!
Modeling her new necklace on a nearby bridge.

In the late afternoon, we headed back to Venice and toward the Rialto Bridge to explore a bit more before heading home to pack.  We wandered down main streets and side alleys, taking in the final sights of Venice. 

What a wonderful stay we’ve had in this waterlogged town—despite the occasional rain, it was a lovely place to end our time in Italy.  And now—on to Paris!

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